The David Michie RSA Bequest Project: seeing the significant in the ordinary

Posted on 12 June 2020

In the second of our project blogs, Research Assistant Armita Bagherzadeh introduces the amazing collection of sketchbooks received with the David Michie bequest


Sketchbooks form a major part of the David Michie Bequest. Overall, the bequest contains 130 sketchbooks and notebooks created and written by Michie from about 1953-54 until 2011-2012. These books, which are a fantastically rich source of inspiration, offer unique insights into Michie’s interests, ideas and working methods. With subject matter that includes nature, life studies, garden compositions and his observations of ordinary people going about their everyday activities, they have become the personal journals and memories of the artist’s life and career.



David Michie, Raccoon, pastel, c.1961-65                        David Michie, Woman with platter of fish on her head, pastel, c.1961-65



David Michie, From sketchbook no.2: MAJORCA/ Deya/ Cyclists/ German Walkers/ Marrakech, 1996-97



David Michie, Building frontage, Amsterdam, pencil, c.1962


Many of these sketchbooks have been labelled by the artist himself. The labels often determine the location in which the sketches were done and sometimes they also state the date and the subject matter. Not many artists label their sketchbooks as thoroughly as David Michie did and this is something that aids research significantly. Looking inside, some of the margins are filled with handwriting and colour notes demonstrating constant exploration, with many of the drawings found in these sketchbooks acting as preliminary works for finished pieces.



Sketchbook covers and on pillow


In an interview with filmmaker Sana Bilgrami for Art in Healthcare in 2015, Michie talks about the process of using sketchbooks in making his paintings: 


…I responded throughout my life as a painter to the things that I’ve seen around me, common things, familiar things, and I’ve tried to find a way of giving them shape…The sketchbooks that I have are filled with little notes of one kind or another that reflect that. I was encouraged as a student to keep a sketchbook and this is a habit that has existed for the rest of my life and I have accumulated dozens of sketchbooks over these years. I see something odd, interesting, peculiar, serious but sometimes very light hearted and even very trivial and I take a note and when I come home depending on how important the reaction was, I start thinking of making a painting using that stimulus; and so a painting starts.


David Michie, Study for Frolic, pen and ink on paper and Frolic, oil on canvas, about 1986, RSA Collections


Michie, it would seem, drew everywhere he went. Sketchbooks for him acted almost as a camera, documenting and capturing the essence of his surroundings with pleasing honesty, much like an open invitation to his daily life.

His interest in the natural world and the outdoors, his love for gardening, fishing or foraging and his passion and enthusiasm for travelling, world cultures, jazz, theatre, cinema, and of course food and wine is evident in the thousands of sketches found in these sketchbooks.


David Michie, From sketchbook 18: Edinburgh Jazz parade, pen and ink, 1995


David Michie, Fishing boats, pastel on paper, c.1961-65



David Michie, Studies of a Red Whiskered Bulbul, black pen and ink, 1996; and;

David Michie, Two studies of an animal skull, black biro, 1954-57


David Michie, From Sketchbook 3, Bologna, pen and ink, 1998


…most of my work is autobiographical and is akin to keeping a diary. Looking back over a number of years there are interests which I can find constant. I respond to things seen and enjoy being arrested by things banal and exotic equally. I like the triviality of ordinary things and the potential they have to become extraordinary and to mean something.

Michie, D. (1982), from notes delivered to public prior to him being introduced for the post of head of the School of Painting and Drawing at ECA; The Michie Bequest Archives


David Michie, Timber house in garden, pastel on paper, 1965


The travelling scholarship he was awarded in 1953-54 took him and his fellow painter and friend John Houston OBE RSA (1930-2008) to Paris, Milan, Florence, Rome, Orvieto, Anticoli Corrado, Naples, Ravenna and Venice. Whilst in Florence and Milan they were in the company of William G Gillies OBE RSA (1898-1973). At the time, Gillies was the head of Painting and Drawing of Edinburgh College of Art and had visited Italy to see ECA Student works in the Exposition Internationale des Academies des Beaux-Arts in Milan, before travelling to Florence.


David Michie, Italy sketchbook, 1953-54, RSA Collections


David Michie, Portrait of John Houston OBE RSA (1930-2008), (lifelong friend and fellow ECA Travelling Scholar), brown pen and ink, Italy, 1953-54


David Michie, an Italian domed church, black conte, 1953-54


David Michie, Studies of Putto probably taken from a seen artwork, Italy, black conte, 1953-54


For the past year, my main focus has been accessioning these remarkable treasures. Accessioning, in basic terms, is the process of documenting and creating a permanent record of an acquisition within a collection, and assigning a unique number to the object.

In the case of Michie’s sketchbooks, I have been meticulously documenting every page of each sketchbook capturing essential information in order to make this collection and its related data available and accessible for study as well as preserving them for future generations. These objects, which form the basis of research and interpretation, have each page photographed and kept on record for easier access. So far, almost half of these sketchbooks and notebooks have been accessioned and added to the collections database.

For David Michie, a profound appreciation of ordinary things is what sketchbooks were made for thus we are also planning on professionally digitising and uploading this collection online in the future to allow everyone the opportunity to peak through these windows into his world and get inspired.


Armita Bagherzadeh

RSA Collections Team